Getting Started with Lucent's 802.11b Wireless LAN Card

by Rob Flickenger

Why fiddle with subscription serial speed wireless services when you can pack your own 11Mbps broadband connection?

The Lucent Wavelan (more recently renamed, Orinoco) card can give you a fast, secure, wireless connection that acts just like a conventional Ethernet link. If you have gone to a trade show in the last year, you've probably seen one of these funny looking cards sticking out of the side of many an excited geek's laptop.

What would make them run around and rant as if they'd just been Slashdotted? Probably the impressive technical specs:

  • 11 Mbps wireless connection
  • 40-bit WEP or 104-bit RC4 link layer encryption
  • Interoperability with other cards that support the IEEE 802.11b wireless standard (like the Cisco Aironet or the Apple Airport card)
  • Tiny size - a PCMCIA card that sticks out less than 1 inch
  • Cross-platform support (Linux, Mac, and Win* are all supported.)
  • Very low cost (about $150, comparable to a PCMCIA 10/100 Ethernet card)

These uber-cool devices operate in the deregulated 2.4-GHz band (just like high-end cordless phones). They work best with direct line of sight, but will operate through walls, windows, ceilings, and just about anything not made of metal. And they not only work as advertised, they work well.

Of course, you've got to get them installed first, which is unnecessarily quirky (and in some cases, outright frustrating). But fear not, we'll brave the dark forces of product re-branding and misguided Microsoft plug-and-pray together!

First, I'll tell you what equipment you need: a gateway and a wireless LAN card. Next, I'll explain how to install the drivers for the card. Then I'll focus in on installation on different platforms: Windows, Mac, and Linux. Finally, I'll talk a bit about security and encryption.

What do I need?

Obviously, if you're going to go wireless, you'll need at least two radios (just like walkie-talkies, kids). In most cases, these two radios will be

  • one or more wireless LAN cards that sit in laptops, and
  • a gateway connecting your wireless local area network to the rest of the Internet.

You can actually get started quickly using only two wireless LAN cards, setting them up in peer-to-peer mode. This will let you get two machines talking to each other, but unless one is also hardwired to another network (for example, the Internet), it gets dull pretty fast.

You can also ask around at work to see if someone has already set up a wireless network. If not, direct your friendly sysadmin to this article. =)

Wireless gateway. If you have an existing network and want to add wireless services to it, you have a couple of options: buy an appliance, or roll your own.

If you're interested in rolling your own, our own Schuyler Erle has written a good piece on building a wireless gateway with standard parts, titled Recipe for a Linux 802.11b Home Network.

Another way to go is with Apple Computer's AirPort system. If you have an AirPort-equipped Mac wired into your network, you can put it into "software base station" mode to serve all 802.11 cards, regardless of platform. To find out how to do this, read Derrick Story's article, Connecting PCs to Apple's Wireless Airport.

Other manufacturers are also rushing to provide cheap "residential gateways." You can buy one from Cisco, Apple or Lucent (actually, its 802.11 subsidiary, Agere) for anywhere from $200 to $1,000.

Wireless LAN card. As you've probably guessed from the title of this article, we're working with Lucent wireless cards. Lucent originally launched it as the WaveLan Turbo 11Mb PC Card. I have also seen it listed as the WaveLan 11 Mbps Turbo IEEE 802.11. Evidently, neither of these names were sexy enough, so they've changed it to the Orinoco PC card. Ah, that's so much clearer.

To cloud the issue further, you'll see references to the Silver and Gold varieties. What's the difference? Encryption method. The Silver cards support the 802.11b standard 40-bit WEP method, while the Gold cards offer a 104-bit (hashed up to 128-bit) RC4. As using the latter breaks compatibility with anything but another Lucent Gold card, and some doubts have been cast on the actual security provided by WEP, the cheaper Silver card seems to make the most sense.

As if all that weren't enough, the 802.11b division of Lucent is now calling itself 'Agere', and has started shipping the Gold and Silver cards with a Blue label. I suppose a bit of consistency is too much to ask. Yes, these are the same exact hardware, with a brand new sticker. I suppose it gave their Marketing department something to do...

Despite all of the repositioning and rebranding, I still like this gear because it's one of the few remaining cards that still sport an external antenna connector. In the following examples, I'll assume that we already have a gateway setup and that we'll be installing a WaveLan card in a laptop.

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